Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Right to Write: Gender and Class

"I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about 'experience' -- the compass of what they know -- while men write wide and bold -- the big canvas, the experiment form. Henry James misunderstood Jane Austen's comment that she wrote on small pieces of ivory -- e.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much of the same was said of Emily Dickenson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited to anything of anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitions for literature? Ambitious for herself?" -- Jeanette Winterson from her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I've been paying a lot of attention lately to what writers say about their craft -- specifically how men's and women's writing is perceived by readers and critics alike. Somewhere I have jotted down a fragment of an old Andrea Dworkin quote where she said something to the effect of "I write like a man." What does that even mean? Opinionated and ambitious? Ambitious in the artistic or in the commercial sense? Or both? Because I don't see being rooted in the minutiae of daily life anathema to ambition or experimentation. I think a lot of it is perception -- men's writing is seen as tackling BIG THEMES simply because that's what we expect men to do. Women are supposed to remain close to home; ergo, so does their writing.

As much as I'm enjoying Jeanette Winterson's new book, I can't make any of it resonate with me. Intellectually, I know that I don't have be singing a chorus of "me toos" for a book to have value, but the only thing I've ever read about the act of writing that made any sense was this from Gloria Anzaldua:
"Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me? I'll do anything  to postpone it -- empty the trash, answer the telephone. The voice recurs in me who am I, a poor chicanita from sticks, to think I could write?"
Writing wasn't something people in my family did. It was frivolous. It certainly wasn't work. Work was something you came home from tired and with dirty hands. A number of feminists claim to have found their voice through writing, but some of those same women criticize others for not having the best writing skills when they do attempt to put pen to paper. (Or fingertips to keyboard.) Feminism to me will always be tied to class, and I see this happening a lot of feminist blogs. Are we so afraid to criticize each other's words that we instead criticize each other's process? Is that somehow "safer," more acceptable?

Recently on her Tumblr*, Sady from Tiger Beatdown wrote of women's fear of offending others and how it stifles their writing. I agree, but I think it's painting with some pretty broad brush to assume that's the only thing stifling women's voices. I don't fear offending people, but I do fear being seen as less sophisticated or even less intelligent than my peers because I didn't go to a "good" school or that I live in a conservative part of the country. These things cut across gender lines and tend to get a little lost in the discourse on women and writing.

*her personal blog, which I don't feel comfortable linking to

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to add that it wasn't my intention to lump Jeanette Winterson in with the usual crop of privileged, second-wave feminists. She's pretty far from that, but reading her book, I do get the sense that the only acceptable narrative for a working-class woman is one of "I struggled, but I was exceptional."